Selfies: How photography might lose its soul


Wow, look at me at Auschwitz, isn’t it great? The arrival of the high quality camera as a standard feature on smartphones has brought with it not only an important news tool, but in the wrong hands a tool for contemptible behaviour by ignorant, insensitive voyeurs. Above, a group of tourists at the notorious gates of Auschwitz smiling for a selfie

PHOTOGRAPHERS today produce powerful images using sophisticated equipment, from dangerous places like Sudan and elsewhere, and places not necessarily dangerous, but containing crucial images. Such as the heartrending picture of the lifeless body of a young Syrian boy on a Greek beach in 2015, one of 12 Syrians who drowned attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos, encapsulating the extraordinary risks refugees took to reach the west.

These photographs provide visual insight into situations ordinary people would not have access to. And the images are distributed wider and faster than in previous eras on the internet, with more immediate effect. Many cameras also have sound recording capabilities, adding to their power. The downside: the internet also provides an easy platform for doctored images, for agenda-driven purposes or ‘fake news’.

Looking backwards, there are some pictures that almost everyone will know. On June 8, 1972, a South Vietnamese plane mistakenly dropped a load of napalm on its own soldiers and civilians, resulting in one of the most iconic photographs of that era. This photograph so moved people about the tragedy of the Vietnam War that it helped end it.

It was a picture of a nude, burning 9-year-old South Vietnamese girl, Kim Phuc, running screaming down the road towards an Associated Press photographer. It was outside Trang Bang village, about 25 miles northwest of Saigon. She had ripped off her burning clothes while fleeing, screaming, ‘Too hot! Too hot!’

The photographer poured water on her and got her to a hospital, with third-degree burns covering her body. The Pulitzer committee awarded him its prize in 1973. The image rapidly spread around the world, becoming a form of shorthand for the atrocities of the War. In that year, America’s involvement in the war ended.

Photographs can define an entire moment in the history of a conflict and influence its course. The horror of the picture of Kim Phuc was echoed in South Africa in June four years later in 1976 in Soweto.  Hector Pietersen, a 12-year-old Soweto schoolboy was just one of the children protesting the enforcement of teaching in Afrikaans. He was shot by police when they opened fire on the students. This resulted in a shocking news photograph of the mortally wounded Pietersen being carried by another schoolboy, while Pietersen’s hysterical sister ran next to them. It was splashed across the front pages of the world’s newpapers.

That photograph too, became a form of shorthand representing the inhumanity of apartheid, and the lengths to which its white enforcers were prepared to go in suppressing black people. The anniversary of Pietersen’s death is marked next Monday, designated as Youth Day.

Photography dates back to the early 1800s, with blurry images. It took a while until quality black and white images allowed news photographers to show the world in detail what was happening to civilians in the midst of conflict.

Before cameras were available as a tool, all we had were second-hand accounts of what had happened to victims and heroes such as Kim Phuc, Hector Pietersen and others that preceded them. Added to the essential list would be the photograph of the Jewish child with a yellow Star of David on his lapel coming out of a bunker at the Warsaw ghetto in 1943 with Nazi troops at his back. And we can’t forget the brave, lone man who stood in the path of a column of Chinese tanks in Tiananmen square in 1989, blocking their advance after the suppression by the government of the massive student-led protests.

Intrepid South African photographers, nicknamed the ‘Bang Bang Club’ documented, at huge personal risk, unimaginable violence between the IFP and ANC in the townships at the end of apartheid. Later, photographer Alon Skuy documented the 2008 xenophobic attacks countrywide, which were rife with equally crude violence.

Quality digital cameras are now a standard feature on smartphones. How would those scenarios play themselves out in contemporary, selfie-rotten times?

Would the photographer have had the urge to turn the camera on himself, with the victim in the background, in the name of the crude narcissism of our age?

Everyone with a cellphone can call himself a ‘photographer’, epitomized by the man – or ‘tourist’- who stands in front of the crematorium at Auschwitz, taking a selfie of himself to send to his friends.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 

Does ‘Never Again’ apply only to Jewish loss?

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When will babies stop dying in Syria? The war which has raged since 2011 is described as a genocide. As Jews remembered the Holocaust on Sunday, questions were asked about why the Syrian carnage is allowed to continue.

WHEN Holocaust survivor Don Krausz talked movingly on Holocaust Remembrance Day on Sunday to a packed audience at West Park cemetery, Johannesburg, about his experiences as a boy in the Nazi concentration camps, an uneasy question hung in the air about what Israel’s former Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a survivor of the Holocaust who was in the Buchenwald camp, said in a recent interview on Israel’s Army Radio – that another “shoah” or holocaust was taking place on Israel’s northern border in the six-year Syrian war.

Lau said what is happening is unequivocally a holocaust. He stepped into contentious territory by using this term, which contemporary dictionaries regard as applying only to the Holocaust in the Second World War in which six million Jews died. He also implied Israel should be doing something to stop the carnage.

For South African Jews, Syria seems a far-away conflict they can do nothing about. And they have huge problems in their own country to deal with. Yet SA Jewry’s strong ties to Israel, which borders on Syria, adds weight to the issue. And the prolific use of the phrase ‘Never Again’ in the context of Holocaust Remembrance Day raises a moral imperative.

In the planning of the annual event, it would be appropriate to mention Syria. It would not detract from memorialising Jewish Holocaust victims, but would indicate that the message is taken seriously.

A theme always present in Holocaust Remembrance Day is that the world’s nations did little to prevent European Jews’ mass murder, when they could have saved many. Everyone knows what is happening in Syria today, yet the world powers stand by and let it go on.

Half a million Syrian men, women and children have been killed and 11 million displaced, many becoming refugees seeking sanctuary in other countries. Chemical weapons such as the nerve gas sarin have been used against civilians. In 2013, artillery shells containing sarin killed 700 civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta; earlier this month Syrian air force planes launched it in bombs. Last December, a quarter of a million civilians were besieged in Aleppo by President Bashir al-Assad’s regime, with the slaughter of hundreds every day.

What could little Israel be expected to do, aside from treating wounded Syrian victims in Israeli hospitals, which it is doing? Its army is strong, but it is a tiny country with many enemies in a chaotic region. Yet Rabbi Lau pleaded for action, and former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin has said Israel could destroy Syrian aircraft used to drop barrel bombs, chlorine and sarin on civilians. Others have suggested establishing a humanitarian corridor for civilians, or a no-fly zone alongside Israel’s border, in alliance with America or other countries so it would not be solely an Israeli operation.

Israel would risk being sucked into the conflict, which is extremely complicated as Assad’s forces, the rebels, Al-Qaeda and ISIS battle it out, with major powers like Russia, Iran and the United States supporting or opposing different sides, amidst the Sunni-Shi’ite hatred which dates back to the founding of Islam. Many commentators believe Syria must ultimately be partitioned into a Shi’ite-controlled western area, a Sunni-controlled eastern area, and a Kurdish-controlled northern area.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who opposes Israel getting involved, said in an interview: “…Let the world take responsibility and act instead of talking.”

The term ‘Never Again’ was intended to ensure that the world would not again allow people – not only Jews – to be slaughtered by mass murderers. It has failed, as shown by the Rwandan genocide and events in Bosnia and Darfur, among others. Now Syria. Former US President Barack Obama did not act in 2013 after Ghouta. Donald Trump will likely follow suit.

Lau has been criticized for his statements. But Holocaust centres worldwide attempt to make the Jewish experience a universal lesson. Johannesburg’s new Holocaust and Genocide Centre, pioneered by Tali Nates – whose father and uncle were on the famous ‘Schindler’s list’ and were thereby saved from the Nazis – stresses the importance of recognising and preventing genocide anywhere. Avner Shalev, the chairman of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre – said the international community must “end the human suffering [in Syria] and provide humanitarian aid to the victims.”

There is no easy answer to Israel’s and the Jews’ role in a world which is again allowing genocide. But the phrase ‘Never Again’ would sound more authentic if it was applied to Syria.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: )

Shocking visuals – will the real editor please stand up?

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Too shocking to watch? A public bus torched in Tshwane during violent demonstrations against the ANC’s choice of a mayoral candidate in local elections in August. Five people were killed in the protests.

AN ENCOURAGING outcome from SABC boss Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s crude attempt to censor visuals of “bad” news and give South Africans sunshine journalism portraying the ANC in a good light, is the massive outcry against him. Eminent journalists, communications regulator ICASA, the public protector Tuli Madonsela, former SABC board members and even members of the ANC have got involved in combatting his abuse of his powers at the public broadcaster.

Images can be highly provocative, of course, and the media should not be a free-for-all in which any visual, however grotesque, should be aired. Editors face tough decisions when reporting on violence and bloodshed – Motsoeneng, however, is not an editor and should not be making editorial policy.

Responsible media channels are – or should be – careful in how they show visuals which violate the dignity and privacy of people who have gone through terrorist bombings or other traumatic events tearing them apart. Where to draw the line is not a rule set in stone, however – different editors will make different judgments in different circumstances.

Should a bereaved Israeli mother sobbing over the coffin of her murdered teenage daughter be shown to millions of anonymous viewers worldwide? Should a body with its head blown off by a suicide bomber be shown? Most good editors would be careful about how they use such visual material. At the very least, responsible media should give adequate warning to viewers about the disturbing nature of material they publish.

Political agendas may play a role in the editor’s decision and sometimes override considerations of dignity. For example, the shocking images published in May 2008 of Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave being set alight by a mob in Ramaphosa informal settlement on the East Rand during a xenophobic rampage, served an important role in raising revulsion among citizens and authorities and stopping the attacks – although there have been subsequent similar attacks.

Likewise, the horrifying image – which immediately went viral on social media – of a Syrian boy’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach as thousands of refugees fled the Syrian civil war in rickety boats, played an important role in making people worldwide understand how desperate was the refugees’ plight.

What the SABC has done, however, has nothing to with editorial sensitivity or respect for human dignity. In banning images of mobs burning government and other buildings and property, and claiming that this is to prevent viewers being influenced to do the same, the aim is to prevent people understanding how catastrophic ANC rule has been for this country, and how angry South Africans are about not receiving what the party promised them year after year. When mobs burn down tens of schools in Vuwani, torch public buses in Tshwane, and engage in similar acts, they are expressing their rage.

Sadly, these kinds of violent actions have almost become a norm in South Africa today, where people feel they will only be listened to if they become violent, burn things or kill people. This poses grave dangers to the country. South Africans are in the main extremely generous and warm-hearted, but a poison has taken root in the society. Strong leadership is needed to turn the ship of violence around – or else we will see more scenes like the burning Mozambican.

Motsoeneng is said to be close to President Jacob Zuma and has an interest in protecting him. But it’s incredible that the people running the public broadcaster from whom 7 million people receive their news, still think they can get away with censorship and sunshine journalism in the era of the internet. What kind of bubble do they live in? Hopefully the saga will end with him being fired together with his board of lackeys. Perhaps this saga might even be the tipping point when South Africans say “Enough!” to Zuma and his cronies and their contempt for the law?

(Geoff Sifrin is a journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: